The best thing about Gravity, the latest film from Mexican Director Alfonso Cuarón, is that there’s literally never been anything like it. Even during its quieter moments, the film is constant visual wonder, and there are jaw-dropping sequences where the level of craft and attention to detail is unparalleled. Just in terms of physics, Cuarón is thoughtful and merciless about just how clunky objects crash and ricochet in space. But for all its innovative camerawork and formal risks, Gravity stumbles with an imperfect narrative and character development.
Cuarón begins with a shot that’s easily longer than ten minutes. It’s one of the many bravura sequences, although it’s quieter than what’s to follow. The camera drifts in space with Earth in the background; our planet is so big in the frame that it is impossible to make out any geographical landmark. The camera eventually finds Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), who is installing a new camera on the Hubble Space Telescope. Astronaut Matt Kowalsky (George Clooney) flies around on a jetpack, supervising the repair and joking with mission control via radio.
Suddenly Houston has some distressing news: debris from a Russian satellite is hurdling toward Hubble. The debris destroys the telescope, cuts off the astronauts’ communication, and Stone spins into the infinity of space. She can still speak to Kowalski, so they work together to return to Earth.
Gravity is not a scary film; instead, it is terrifying. Cuarón ensures that the viewer never forgets the challenges of a zero-gravity environment, whether it’s a bolt that floats into nothingness or the discomfort of a tether. He commits every frame to the realities of space, and it’s terrifying since we must consider the austere brutality of such a void. Still, Cuarón preserves a sense of awe. No film about space travel regards Earth the same way Gravity does; here it seems foreign and welcoming, a sphere with spontaneous moments of ethereal wonder.
Cuarón hides Gravity’s technical complexity in the immediacy of the moment. Shots bleed together so the camera feels like a single, fluid experience. We watch a vessel from afar, then there is seamless transition to a first-person perspective from Stone’s helmet. Some transitions are more subtle: when Stone drifts toward nothingness, we watch her spin then the camera affixes itself to her axis so we feel the spins along with her. With gorgeous 3D photography and the crisp IMAX image, the cumulative effect is awesome in the truest sense of the word. There is no point to watch Gravity at home; you must experience it on the biggest screen possible.
For the first two acts, Bullock’s performance is breathless and visceral. Her vulnerability inspires immediate sympathy, particularly when she provides a running countdown of her space suit’s oxygen level. Cuarón pairs her desperation for primal moments of comfort: Stone makes her way back into space shuttle, for example, and she rests as if she’s in a womb (cords float around her to bring the point home). But as Stone’s journey draws to a close, Cuarón inserts an unnecessary emotional sub-plot. Unlike 127 Hours, where director Danny Boyle could use imagery from outside sources, Cuarón’s conceit limits him to Bullock’s dialogue. The lines fails her in an otherwise challenging, raw performance.
Gravity is a technical marvel with a simple, devastating premise, yet there moments where Cuarón inserts the trappings of mainstream entertainment. Clooney’s effortless charisma is our only source of comic relief: he cracks jokes whenever he’s not figuring out his next move with Stone. Her backstory also provides the context for a redemptive character arc, which is redundant since the raw terror of her situation is enough for us to identify with her (to his credit, the Darwinian overtones of the final frames are life-affirming). Gravity gives some idea of what’s like to be up there. The only trouble is how the story does not reflect the minimalism of space, or its cold beauty.